Duke Nukem: The Once & Future King?


The inside story on PC gaming's greatest comeback—and a look at the game itself

Thrills, drama, a long grind, and a twist ending—these are the sorts of things you normally expect from a videogame. They are not what you expect from the story behind a game. But then, Duke Nukem isn’t any ordinary game, and the saga of its development has been anything but normal. For more than 13 years, the gaming world’s been waiting for Duke, and now the end is in sight. But first, let's review what's happened until now.

It all started back in 1996, with Duke Nukem riding high. The game for which he was known, Duke Nukem 3D, was a megaton hit, and gamers clung to the cocksure hero’s every machismo-laden word. He was, quite literally, the king. He was on top of the world. Then in 1997, the follow-up, Duke Nukem Forever, was announced and, shockingly enough, it was all downhill from there. Duke disappeared. Year after year passed, and short of a few quick glimpses of the game, Duke was a disappointing no-show. His once-loyal fan base declared him dead. Anticipation rotted and festered, boiling over into angry cynicism.

The nail in Duke’s supposed coffin, however, came in the form of developer 3D Realms closing up shop in 2009 and a subsequent lawsuit from publisher Take-Two Interactive. And then everything went silent. Game Over. Continue? 5... 4… 3… 2… 1…

But wait! At the last second, Borderlands developer Gearbox Software stepped in and saved the day. Now, Duke Nukem Forever’s back on track and—get this—it’s actually going to come out this time. So, how’s the game? Who’s in charge now? After more than a decade of waiting, will it all be worth it?

We traveled deep into the heart of Texas—to Gearbox’s only-slightly evil lair—for three interviews with the men responsible for the past, present, and future of Duke Nukem. We’ll tell you what they have to say about the legendary franchise and we’ll share the details of our hands-on experience with the upcoming game. Yes, Duke fans, it’s safe to dream again.

Duke Nukem Then

Original Duke Nukem designer George Broussard explains the series' turbulent development history

Maximum PC: Duke's come a long, long, long way. So we're just gonna ask: what took so long? What made you shy away from releasing DNF for all these years?

George Broussard: I wish there was an easy or dramatic answer for what took so long but there just isn't.  It was just never ready.  We had lots of development issues along the way.  It wasn't a quest for perfection as some silly article in Wired implied last year.

I think what hurt us the most was licensing engines and trying to change them too much.  Shit happens and after delays the options are to continue or kill the game.  I never wanted to kill the game.  We got things turned around dramatically in 2007-2009, with a lot of new hires, and most of the game as it exists today was created in that timeframe.

Do you worry that, in your pursuit of technological superiority, you allowed Duke Nukem to become a relic himself? Do you think Duke, with his crass and juvenile ways, can still be relevant in today's super-serious shooter world?

Duke offers contrast and something very unique and different from the cookie cutter, cardboard, generic game heroes that don't have an ounce of personality.  It's ok to not like Duke or think him juvenile, but at least he's not boring and vanilla.  Most people play games to escape and enjoy a fantasy for a while.

What do you think makes Duke so endearing as a character? Why have people continued to care so much for so long?

I think like Darth Vader is an ultimate archtype of a villain, Duke follows the archtype for the alpha male action hero.  When we created Duke's character outline we wanted him to be a combination of Arnold Schwarzennegger, Clint Eastwood and John Wayne.  Combine those characters with a distinct look, attitude and one-liners and the result is that Duke is just an iconic character.

Expect to relive this football stadium battle in Duke Nukem Forever.

How'd the Gearbox deal come about?

First, we had a relationship with Randy and Gearbox.  Randy worked for us in 1996-97 and I play poker with Randy and some Gearbox guys every week.  Second, we were in a bitter lawsuit with Take 2 that was going to last for years as they had shown no interest in being reasonable.  Third, behind the scenes, there were 9 or so ex-3DR guys (Triptych Games) that were working on DNF in secret, on their own money, out of a house, because they believed in the game.

Summer of 2009, I played Borderlands at Gearbox, prior to release.  That afternoon, Randy and I talked about the suit and how things were going.  He mentioned that he'd love to help or get invovled, and while it wasn't clear what that meant, it was clear he was passionate to somehow get involved with Duke.

A couple weeks later I mention Randy's interest in passing to my partner Scott and everyone got to talking.  Around Xmas 2009 a strategy was planned that would leverage Gearbox's positive relationship with Take 2 (due to Borderlands' success), settle the suit, and get the game published.

How do you feel about that deal? Is it a best-case scenario for DNF? How much input do you have on the game now, if any?

It's the result of several back to back miracles that people will get to see this game.  Imagine flipping a coin 5 times and getting heads each time.  It should be win win for everyone involved.  From what I've seen the game is still largely what we had in May 2009, but with a year of work and polish from the guys at Triptych Games.  We provide feedback when asked about all things Duke but it's largely out of our hands now so we'll see what happens.

Is it difficult letting someone else finish up and ultimately take the reins on your creation? Do you regret not getting to finish the game yourself?

Sure, but it is what it is, and at some point you get enough distance and perspective to let things go.  It probably took about a year.  I'm just glad we worked it all out.

How did you originally envision Duke Nukem Forever? Gearbox’s goal seems to be a sort of tribute to all that Duke stands for. Their mantra seems to be “It’s the Duke you’ve always known, but bigger, better, etc.” Was that your goal throughout Duke Nukem Forever’s development process as well?

Part of why we did this deal is that we knew Randy pretty well and he worked on the add-on for the original game and he loves and gets Duke.  So, it's probably in pretty good hands and I think they will treat it as a top series inside Gearbox.  It's hard to continue an ip that someone else created, but by them owning it now, they are incentivised to care about it and not treat it as a middle tier licensed project.

What’s next for you? Do you still want to develop games? Or does the future hold something entirely different?

To be honest I haven't thought much about it.  I'm just enjoying the time off.  I still play games and love making them.

Next page: Duke Nukem Now with Gearbox cofounder Brian Martel »

Duke Nukem Now

Gearbox cofounder Brian Martel predicts how Duke will adapt after his long absence

Maximum PC: Duke's been out of action for a long, long time. Gaming's gone through all sorts of fads and phases since his last outing – from loudmouthed brat, to pimply faced teenager, to a slightly awkward young adult. Regardless of how the gameplay turns out, do you think Duke himself is still relevant to modern gamers? Where does Duke fit in?

Brian Martel: I think he fits in the same place he always has, which is, in a way, a reflection of the ‘80s action hero. I think that’s really it. He’s this badass dude and he’s semi-misogynistic, right? But he doesn’t hate women. Because obviously, he wouldn’t be rescuing all the women in the world with this alien invasion [if he did]. So we’re talking super deep story here, obviously. [Laughs].

I think he’s still relevant. On the one hand, he’s a reaction to the ‘80s action hero, and he’s an embodiment of all those sorts of things – the people that George Broussard was inspired by and all that kind of stuff. But at the same time, when you have characters like the Doom marine and the Wolfenstein guy – both of whom never said anything – for Duke, having him actually comment on what was going on was novel then. And I think we’re sort of in the same place again. You know, when we look at Gordon Freeman, he’s awesome, but everyone else is reacting to Gordon. He’s not saying anything. He’s just the vessel for the player. Now we have Duke again coming back, and that’s where we are today.

With Duke going MIA for so many years, why do you think no one really took that ball and ran with it? Why do we instead have all these mute, blank slate-type characters running around saving the world?

Basically, there’s this way of thinking where the character shouldn’t say something that the player may be thinking. So on one hand, if you have sort of the University of Game Design, a lot of people fall in this category of “the player should be the one thinking it, and the character shouldn’t be saying it.” And that when the character says it, it’s a little disembodied. So you’re like, “Was that me? Who was that?” Especially when you have a cast of characters around – like in a Modern Warfare. So I think there’s that school of thought.

With Duke alone – nobody but himself, the sort of sole savior of the universe – when he says something, it’s kind of easy to be there. So I don’t really know why no one’s really done it before, except some of those reasons: it was a taste thing, and some people were a little bit scared of it in some ways.

What kind of condition was Duke Nukem Forever in when Gearbox took over? Was it mostly finished? How much of an influence has Gearbox had on the game creatively speaking? What's been added on your watch? Was the plot finished when you took the wheel? What about levels, weapons, and whatnot?

The game was in really good shape, first off. So to answer your question, it was in good shape. There was a lot of it. The guys at Triptych Games had already pared it down a bit. So they had been working on it for a while anyway. Mike Wardwell – who’s the producer of the project at Gearbox – really worked with those guys to help narrow it down even more and make sure that the scope is correct. You also have the sort of things where the beginning of the game has a certain feel, so you’re getting the player into it.

It’s just one of those sort of things where new, fresh eyes could help look at it and go “Oh, you guys might try this.” But it wasn’t like “You should do this kind of thing!” It was like “You should try this.” This is influence. “It’s your game. You guys can do what you want. But this is how we would do this thing.”

Now, we did some other things like modify the EDF soldiers. Before, they were probably a little too sci-fi – maybe a little more like a Halo guy. Now they’ve got armor that’s more appropriate to the era, and Duke – this guy who’s all by himself – fits in appropriately. Because if you have this super sci-fi guy next to Duke, it feels weird. So we did some touching up on Duke as well and really pushed that character we’re talking about – that badass ‘80s hero kind of thing. Obviously the ‘roid rage, that kind of thing. [Laughs].

So yeah, that was really it in a nutshell. Just kind of putting a nice gleam on it, and we’re working with those guys to do it. Then the other aspect is just getting it onto the consoles. So here’s a game that’s been being developed for the PC with no mind for that kind of thing. And now you go “Hey, by the way, you have to fit in this memory and these restrictions!” So that’s a new burden for those guys, and we’ve got a lot of expertise there. So we’re putting a lot of effort toward that.

So would you call Duke Nukem Forever a Gearbox game? Is it your baby, or is it just some kid you adopted from 3D Realms?

Well, it’s hard not to call it a Gearbox game, because we’re obviously adding our own bits to it and our flavor to it, and making sure it reaches a high quality level. Those are things we would put under our brand. But at the same time, you know, I think that’s it in the simplest form. Yes, I think it is a Gearbox game. I think when you look at Randy [Pitchford] and myself and our history of working at 3D Realms, this is so close to our heart that, yeah, we may not have developed it, but it falls within the same kind of things we would like to see out there.

What was it like debuting the game at Penny Arcade Expo? Were you happy with fans’ response to it? Were you surprised at all?

I don’t think anybody could have predicted that reaction. We went in knowing that, yeah, a lot of people were going to like it, but you’re still kind of hedging your bets. You’re still kind of like “Is this game gonna be relevant?” All those things.

3DR co-owner George Broussard wouldn’t leave his hotel room, right?

Yeah, and I think we all felt that to some degree. We knew the game was really good, and we also knew it was really different from anything else that’s on the market right now from a diversity standpoint and the kinds of things you do in the game. It’s just different. And given all of that, we knew that if people got their hands on it, they were going to like it.

And the first moment they opened the doors, the guys were just running through. A guy basically fell down. He stopped so fast sliding. He was like “Holy sh**! Is that real?” He was all over the place, you know? And we just said, “Yeah, sure, come on in. Come get in line.” The first guys got in line and they just couldn’t believe it. And then the lines kept getting bigger and bigger up to the point where one of the lines was six hours long. People were waiting six hours to play this game. It was nuts.

So nobody could predict that. And then the stuff that happened on Twitter. it took over Twitter for a whole day. it was just nuts. But it was awesome. We were very happy that there was that much interest in it.

There’s got to be a lot of pressure there, then. You have quite the legacy to live up to, and if you don’t, the entire Penny Arcade Expo will probably hunt you down. Has that pressure gotten to you at all?

Yes and no. On the one hand, of course we’re all like “I hope that everybody is going to like what we’re delivering.” But at the same time, the game is reaching a level where it’s different from the kinds of games that we’re seeing. It’s whacky, it’s irreverent, it’s got that sort of tone to it. It’s all these different things that come together in a way that’s unique. So given that, it needs to be out there in the world. So for us, that’s sort of the fundamental driving thing: we want to get this out in people’s hands as soon as possible, deliver it to as many people as we can, and hopefully, they’ll all love it the way we do.

How worried are you about the potential for backlash? Seems like every other Internet comment you guys get is “Well, if it’s not the greatest game of all time, then it was the biggest waste of time… of all time.”

There’s going to be guys that are noisy. And there are guys that are going to want to say things just to say things. And yes, there are people that we can never satisfy. The mind’s eye is always going to be better than what we can deliver. That’s true for every one of those guys working on the project right now. When we start a game, the mind’s eye vision of it is always much more grand [than the final product]. I think it’s really a matter of understanding what’s good enough and not trying to drive toward utter perfection.

Frankly, I think everyone should just be thankful that they’re getting to play the game at all. So hopefully, that overrides the idea of “It’s not the best game I’ve ever played!” I believe they’re going to have a really fun experience. I believe it’s going to be an incredible game. All these things are going to be satisfying. But you can’t be perfect. That’s probably the travesty of the history of the project, is that this isn’t the fifth or sixth Duke game we have out. Where would Duke be today if he’d had all those other adventures?

And maybe he did. For a lot of those guys who worked at 3D Realms of the years, he had a lot of adventures. [Laughs]. There were multiple games that they built that aren’t actually in this game for all intents and purposes. But, you know, I’m just happy everybody’s going to get it and be able to play it.

What engine is the game running on these days?

It is a modified version of Unreal. It’s ridiculously heavily modified.

What’s the weapon selection looking like this time around? Anything particularly ridiculous or insane?

As far as I know, I don’t think the guns are going way, way overboard. I think they’re generally what you would expect. I mean, you’ve still got your shrink ray and your freeze ray and all that stuff. They haven’t really gone crazy with the weapons. So it should be really modern versions of everything you’d expect from a Duke game – with a few little twists here and there.

Are other aspects of the weapon system sticking with that throwback mentality? Simple and to the point? No weapon upgrade systems and things of that nature to clog up the works?

It’s pretty much based around the idea that the level helps you know what you need to use, and there are specific sorts of problems to solve with a particular gun. And you’re really only able to get the guns that are available on a level-by-level basis. There’s no crazy upgrade path – no Borderlands “a zillion guns” sort of thing.

On the whole, how open is the game? I noticed in the demo that I could do whatever I wanted for a bit, but before long, I moved into an area that pretty much roadblocked everyplace I wasn’t supposed to go.

It’s more of a linear scripted type of game. There are areas we call “fat lemons.” So it’s more of a fat lemon kind of thing, where you come in to an entry point and sometimes you’ll have sort of a wide path. So it gets open, and then it kind of closes up again. That’s sort of a typical feel for this game. It’s not a GTA-type thing.

How sophisticated is your AI? Are these guys going to be taking cover and flanking, or are they glorified dart boards?

At different times in the game, they do a bunch of different things. So at times, they’ll be rushing you, like the Pig Cops will be climbing over stuff and running at you. Other times, yeah, they’ll sort of duck behind something, pop up, do their strafing maneuver, and eventually work their way around. You know, it’s got a little bit of all those AI things. But it’s not trying to be, you know, “I’m playing against a tactical team.” They’re Pig Cops, for God’s sake! And Lizard Troopers. They’re not the smartest. [Laughs].

How much of the game is going to be vehicular? There was a quick monster truck section in the demo, so…

I don’t know what the total percentage is. It’s sort of “when does it feel good to have a [vehicular] moment, or when does the story make sense to have this moment?” It’s appropriately paced for thinking about diversity through the game.

So is it just the monster truck, or will be Duke be making non-kosher road pizzas with whatever car or truck he can get his hands on?

There’s other vehicles, yeah. And there are many drivable wheeled vehicles and other things.

What’s the game’s multiplayer component looking like? What kinds of modes and options can we expect?

I think this is going to be more along the lines of modes and a lot of levels. It’s kind of along the lines of what you would expect from Duke. It’s going to be a badass kind of fun Duke experience from multiplayer, so if you liked Duke multiplayer in the past, this game is going to be exactly what you would expect.

Earlier, I heard Randy Pitchford and co. talking about some “ESRB troubles” you’ve been having what with Duke, you know, being Duke. Are you skirting the limits of the M-rating by taking Duke’s frequently vocalized love of sex and ultra-violence to the next level? Is this something that’s going to make the GTAs and God of Wars of the world blush and fidget with their petticoats?

It’s probably going to be close. We’re pushing the limits of the M-rating for sure. We’re well, well into M. If there’s a threshold M, we’re very much in there.

The modern shooter landscape is full of over-serious, overly gray Gears of War, Call of Duty, and Halo: Reach types. Do you think Duke has the potential to turn things around, make the industry take a good, hard look and the mirror, and say, “Hey, we’re taking ourselves a bit too seriously”? Do you think videogames in general need more humor?

Yeah, I think that when you play Duke, you’ll realize that games are supposed to be fun. And it’s pretty much as simple as that. Yeah, sure, there’s room for serious games and games that are irreverent and just fun. Duke’s on that threshold.

Think of it as a spectrum. Look at movies; think of, you know, true drama. That’s what these games are trying to be – you know, the action equivalent of a true drama. Heavy Rain, that’s a little further over. [Duke] is more like “The Hangover.” It’s more toward that spectrum. It’s not literally that, but yes, it’s got its moments that may be moderately serious, but the rest is just having a good time. That’s the crux of Duke: he’s having a good time and he’s saving the world, and it’s fun to save the world.

You’re saying 2011 for the release date. Can you narrow it down at all? First half of the year? Second?

It’s 2011. If I told you a particular date, no one would believe it anyway. So it’s better that we just all acknowledge the fact that if we’re going to make a promise, let’s make a broad promise. Because the more narrow we get, the more like asshats we’ll look if we fail. So our goal is to say 2011, and we’ll get it to you when everything comes in line and it’s appropriate for the market. That’s what we’re taking into account. We just don’t want to make promises we can’t keep.

So you brought Duke to Penny Arcade Expo as a way of saying, “Look, everyone. DNF is real. You can play it!” It seems, then, that a demo is in order at some point, if only to send a similar message to the rest of the world. Do you have any firm plans there?

I think we’re still trying to figure out exactly what those plans will be, but whatever they are, they’re going to be in line with that idea. We want to get it into people’s hands so they know it’s real. We’ve been joking about different ideas of how we could do that – including a taco truck driver driving around the country so people can play it. Whatever. I don’t know what will actually happen, but we’ll do something really cool. We love that reaction when people can get it in their hands and play it and believe it. So we’ll see.

How about the standard modern shooter checkboxes? Will there be post-release DLC?

We’re definitely thinking about those things, and we’re making sure that they can be a part of the game. But right now, we don’t have a direct plan for what those will be. Right now, our biggest thing is wanting to get this game into people’s hands in 2011, and we want to make sure it’s a good game that everybody wants. That’s our number one concern.

Next page: Duke Nukem Forever with Gearbox president Randy Pitchford »

Duke Nukem Forever

Gearbox president Randy Pitchford discusses plans for the franchise going forward

Maximum PC: You now own the Duke Nukem license in its entirety. Congratulations! So, what's the future hold now that you're in control? Just on a conceptual level, do you think the Duke formula needs a modern reinvention?

Randy Pitchford: I think he’ll be there just fine. But my goal with the franchise is, I really want to lower the bar. [Laughs]. I think you know what I mean by that. Duke can get away with so much that’s not possible with so many game franchises. Everybody’s taking themselves so seriously.

What’s cool about Duke Nukem is that what’s going on in his world is actually serious in his world. But in our world, it’s almost like a funhouse mirror version of the real world. And when we see it, it’s hilarious. It’s just entertainment, you know. But in his world, that sh**’s going down like that. And it’s just so great to have a brand where you can do that.

My hope is to create entertainment – to have the world entertained by that. But Duke continues to be just as important and relevant as always. I think Duke is one of the most iconic characters in all of videogames. We’ll see what happens with DNF, but I think we’re going to have a lot of fun with it, and I think Duke’s going to continue to be relevant.

So what’s your take on the whole perception that Duke’s brand of machismo is “too ‘90s” for the modern, Modern Warfare-loving gamer?

I don’t think so. I don’t even see him as ‘90s, really. What he stands for and what he’s really all about is kind of timeless. I think there’s tuning that happens over time. Like, if you think of other timeless characters, franchises like Lord of the Rings and James Bond – and I don’t mean to suggest that a videogame character is yet as important as these things – but we can look at them because we all know what those reference points are. And yeah, there’s tuning in how they’re handled in different eras, but the core of what’s there can always be relevant.

What's it like taking control of a franchise that has so much history attached? Is it a burden in some ways? Do you ever feel like you can't tamper with the Holy Grail? That ultimately, you're limited to some kind of “WWDD” mentality instead of what's actually best for the game?

I can’t remember the exact quote, but I once read something where Brad Bird, who’s the director of “The Incredibles,” said something about Walt Disney and his time with the Disney company. Now, this was after Walt Disney himself wasn’t around anymore, but he had this incredible media company with these incredible properties and franchises. And the gist of what [Brad] was saying was something like it seemed to him that there was this incredible rocket that’s Disney, right? And it’s this amazing, incredible, powerful rocket. And a lot of the folks in the company were afraid to mess with it, because they didn’t want to break it. But some other folks were like “Let’s see how high we can go. Let’s use this thing. Let’s see how fast we can go.”

And I think when you have something that’s important to people and it has a history, you have that dichotomy. You know, you don’t want to break, but on the other hand, if you don’t use it, then why does it exist? So I’m kind of more in the “let’s see how fast and high this rocket can go” kind of mentality. But I can understand that some folks would be worried that some things are fragile. But important things aren’t fragile. And if you’ve failed to try, then you’re actually doing the worst damage of all. So we’ll be having quite a good time with Duke.

What's happening to all the smaller Duke games that were in development? Like the portable trilogies. Will they be finished? Is Gearbox holding Duke tight, or will you continue to allow other developers to dabble in the franchise?

Before we got involved – before Gearbox acquired the brand – those deals were done. Those deals were not voided. We didn’t terminate those deals in the course of acquiring the intellectual property. Those guys are still doing that. There’s an agreement there that gives them a license to do that. I’m very curious to see what comes out of that effort, you know, as a fan of the character and the franchise. I’m going to be looking at that from the outside, and I have no intent to tamper with it.

How about the oft-rumored but never confirmed Duke Begins? Is that still happening? Or are we skipping it and moving right into The Duke Night?

Well, what do you know about that?

I know that it was leaked in some court documents, and that Gearbox was allegedly developing it. I assume there were some beginnings in there. Maybe a Duke or two.

What I understand is, in one of the court filings when Take-Two and 3D Realms were suing each other, there was a reference to something called Duke Nukem Begins, and Gearbox was implicated in that reference. What’s interesting about that is there’s dozens of pages – probably hundreds of pages – in that court stuff, but for some reason, that became something somebody pulled out, and it became a story. That’s all there is. I can’t add anything to that.

It doesn’t help me or the fans of Duke to explain what that was, because that was referenced in an argument between Take-Two and 3D Realms. I think the only thing I can say about that is, yeah, you can see that we were implicated in something, and that implication goes back to 2007. There’s some public evidence now that Gearbox has had some involvement in this for a while. And the world we’re in today is one where Take-Two and 3D Realms have both abandoned their lawsuits against each other, and there’s now a positive effort toward creating entertainment.

And that’s what we should focus on. How it came to be, I’ve been very candid and told a lot of the story. There’s some components of that story that just can’t be told yet. And it’s not because there’s a desire to hold secrets. It’s because it doesn’t help the fans of the game or the product to go over that stuff right now. But I’m sure that later some of these stories might still be interesting to some people, and it might be ok to have that come out.

Where do you see PC gaming itself going in the coming years? Do you think it's “dying” like some people claim? Or is it just in a cocoon, waiting to re-emerge better than ever before?

Let’s see, the “dying” comment. I think there’s a lot of clear evidence that relativity between the number of customers that we are reaching on the PC compared to the number of customers we’re reaching on other platforms when considering the traditional retail model, that ratio is different today than it’s been in the past. And it can cause one to conclude that there’s a downward trend on the PC side of that equation, and that’s troubling for people that like PC games.

However, that isn’t the entire story. The entire story is that the PC platform has a lot of opportunity on it as well. And it has a lot of freedom in how we find a way to create business models and to reach our customers. And that freedom means we can apply our creativity in doing things there. The thing is, though, it’s a complicated business, and we tend to have a lot of risk involved. Because we’re not just making entertainment – which has a lot of subjectivity in being able to predict outcomes – but we’re also making entertainment in a field that’s heavily impacted by the platforms and the technology itself.

And that means there’s a lot of change constantly happening, and there’s a lot of research and change and discovery in order to just exist on any given platform. When you add all that up, I think it makes it harder for people who have the means to make big bets to be able to make big bets in ways where they can’t predict the outcome. So let me see if I can make more sense out of that: with the retail business, we’re all able to look at that from the outside and say, “Here’s what’s selling. Here’s what isn’t selling.” We’re not able to look at it from the outside and go “Hey, here’s how much these people are monetizing their subscription model” or “Here’s how much these guys are monetizing digital distribution” or “Here’s how much these other people are monetizing microtransactions.”

And, you know, it is entertainment, and that’s first. But it’s commercial entertainment, and everyone doing it is also in a business. If folks get in a situation where they’re spending more money creating entertainment than they’re making or can make, they will cease to be in business, so that means they won’t get to create any entertainment after that. If we want to survive and be successful in this industry, we must be very rational in our decision-making to make sure that we should make and can make at least as much as we spend. If that’s not true, then we shouldn’t be doing it.

So, what does all that mean? It means that there’s opportunity on the PC. The opportunity is different than the traditional packaged goods model in terms of big opportunity. But because it’s different and harder to see, it’s more difficult for people making big bets to make those big bets there. So you’ll find a lot of those big bets are being made on the consoles, because those are reliable and predictable bets.

What about the guys who allegedly support PC gaming and then turn around and discount it entirely? Like recently, Microsoft’s Kinect creator Kudo Tsunoda proclaimed that no one plays first-person shooters on PC anymore.

It’s sad to hear that from a guy at Microsoft, because they own the Windows platform. I’ve had some great console shooter experiences, but I’ve also had some shooter experiences that really can’t be replicated as well on the consoles. You know, the PC is just a better platform for that particular game.

And the other thing too that we like about the PC with our competitive PC games is we can perpetually iterate on the PC. We can have a direct relationship with our customer and change the product and improve the product over time. Whereas even though we have options like DLC on the consoles, our freedom and flexibility is limited. And our cost to do micro-adjustments impedes a lot of things that are kind of helpful. So that saddens me to hear that.

But I can’t be taking that quote in context, because who knows what his larger story was there. I know Microsoft loves their Windows platform and is very committed to that, and I know Microsoft is very committed to it as a gaming platform. We also know Microsoft has invested a tremendous amount to create a new console platform – the Xbox – and they kept investing and inventing over time to the point where the Xbox 360 is a very successful platform, and it has some great games on it. So I know both platforms are important to them. But [Kudo’s quote] doesn’t seem like a statement a responsible person would want quoted in that way, so I have to imagine there’s more context there.

Where does Duke fit in with the ever-changing state of PC gaming? Do you plan on leveraging any of the “new” PC gaming business models for Duke? Social gaming, free-to-play, etc? Or is Duke strictly a hardcore, big-budget type of guy?

We’ll see. We’ll see. One of the things I love about this industry is that we’re constantly changing and adapting and evolving. I think I would be foolish to pin myself on things even three-to-five years out. I think we should take decisions as they come and try to be optimal. The goal should always be to entertain people – to offer entertainment that’s worth people’s time and money. So my goal is “how many people can we reach and to what extent can we gratify them with the entertainment we’re providing?” New platforms are a great way to reach new people. Existing platforms are where we can already understand who’s playing. But if we’re animated and motivated by the idea of entertaining people, then we should not be close-minded about how we’re doing it and how we’re financing it.

I know you can’t pigeon hole yourself, but where do you hope Duke will be in five years?

My hope and my expectation is Duke Forever – when it launches – will immediately remind everyone how relevant Duke is. I think the game will sell really well. I think it’s a great, fun experience. It’s interesting because he’s been gone so long, but he almost stands out. It’s like even though he’s been there all this time and what’s there is so easy and obvious, the whole rest of the industry’s trying so hard to be serious and locked down that Duke’s almost like a breath of fresh air.

When I played through the content that existed when I got involved, I was like “This is f***ing great! I need Duke right now!” I didn’t even realize how much I needed him right now, you know, as a gamer. So I think it’s going to work well and that’s going to make a lot of other things easier. It’s going to make it easier to make a big bet on successor games, try things with the brand, and even take some risks – but also understand what works and what we want from Duke, so we can get that.

In five years, you know, games take a while to make, so we’ll definitely have played Duke Nukem Forever. We’ll be playing it next year. That alone is a world I never expected. And then we’ll probably experience some other things from Duke between now and five years from now.

So we’re not going to be waiting 12 or 13 years again?

Can you imagine? That’d be terrible. I don’t think so. At least, that’s not the plan. But we’re also not going to lock in any definitive decisions until we’re able to see what happens with DNF and understand where the world is with that.

Earlier, you were talking about how Duke’s kind of a breath of fresh air now. Why do you think no one else tried fill the void Duke Nukem left after all these years?

I don’t know. I mean, from a gameplay point of view – and even from gameplay, this isn’t entirely true -- I think Serious Sam and Painkiller addressed that just from the shooter portion of it. But I think they missed the other component, which is the balance between action gameplay and almost puzzle solving. And when I say puzzle solving, I’m talking about an obstacle in the world and you have to use some cognitive thinking. You know, think about how to approach the situation and get past that obstacle to move into the next situation – almost like Half-Life pacing. Half-Life’s pacing is very derivative of Duke Nukem 3D in that regard. And that works. That’ll probably work forever. And we don’t have a lot of that. I don’t know why people haven’t tried.

I’m looking at Bulletstorm and it seems cool. It seems like it’s trying to do some attitude. Even in Borderlands, it didn’t take itself very seriously. It had a lot of humor in it. But there are so many branches of humor. Duke’s got himself in a situation where you really can’t do that unless you just straight-up copy it. And if you straight-up copy it, you’re a copy cat. And it’s hard to get away with being a copy cat. So I think Duke’s just been able to lock down that position, even though he hasn’t appeared for so long. He’s so strong that you can’t just show up and people will forget Duke ever existed. So people have had to leave that space alone and try to find their own spaces. It’s really kind of interesting. But it’s a really good question. I hadn’t thought about it until now, so I’m thinking out loud about it with you.

Is Duke set to become one of Gearbox's main franchises? Do you guys hope to become “the folks behind Borderlands, Brothers in Arms, and Duke Nukem”?

You know how it is. Five years from now, we’ll have some crazy new thing and people will be like “These are the guys who made that!” Meanwhile, there are still people who think of us as “the guys who make Half-Life add-ons.” Whatever. I don’t really worry about that. What I worry about is how we can entertain people. What should we do right now to entertain people? If there’s a kick-ass game and we have a great time playing it and it makes at least as much as it cost to build, then it’s a win. It’s a win, you know?

We’re not in this for my ego or Gearbox’s ego. We’re in this to entertain people. That’s the purpose.

After Hell’s Highway, Gearbox did sort of an about-face in terms of tone. You know, who else goes from Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway to a cartoony, irreverent thing like Borderlands? Do you think games in general need more humor? Is it time to stop taking ourselves so seriously?

That kind of connects with what I was just saying, right? With Borderlands, we kind of set out to do something there. We felt like we did it, you know? The goals of that were very different from the goals of Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway.

So it was sort of a turning point in that respect?

Everything’s a turning point. You know what I think are big turning points? When we did Half-Life for PS2. Why? Because that was our first Gearbox console game. And we got involved before the PS2 even launched. A year before it came out, we were getting our dev kits and learning how to become a console developer. That was a turning point because we learned a whole new set of skills and challenges, and we were able to master those challenges. As a consequence of going through that process, we’re able to reach a lot more people than we ever were before.

As for Borderlands, yeah, I think there is something about image when we try to do things, it expands the range a little bit. Like, if I’ve got a crazy pitch I want to make to a publisher, they don’t just go “Oh, those are the Brothers in Arms guys, so just typecast them as war game guys.” It’s like, did you notice [Gearbox developed] Samba De Amigo or f***ing Tony Hawk? Come on! Samba De Amigo’s about a monkey shaking maracas to Ricky Martin! [Laughs.]

What matters is if it’s interesting to us, is there a good game there to make, and is there something that doesn’t exist unless we do it? And that’s what matters most. So with Borderlands, we really felt like that idea the loot we love with RPG games about growth and choice and discovery is not mutually exclusive from what we love about shooters, which is immediate feedback and visceral moment-to-moment gameplay. There have even been some attempts at it – like Hellgate. And it’s like “Dude! This is not this hard! Why can’t we have this?” No one seems to be able to figure that out. It’s like “We can figure this out. We know how to do this.” And it was hard. We had to figure some things out. But we did it.

Because we were able to make it a wacky universe and we really embraced that, we were just able to cut loose and have a great time with it. And you can feel it in the game. You can feel the passion of the team in there.

Do you think that attitude is missing in the gaming industry in general? That desire to create pure, actual-factual no-holds-barred fun?

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in the gaming industry that sometimes forget that the goal is to entertain the world. They instead think, for instance, “I’m trying to impress other game developers” or something. And the interesting thing is that in order to be good, we need to desire mastery in our craft. So almost all of us that are good have a motivation for mastery.

But sometimes we confuse that motivation and prioritize it higher than the real goal, which is entertainment. Sometimes people make things harder for themselves because of that. Like, “I’m doing this not because the customer can tell the difference between doing it this way or that way, but because I’ll feel gratified that I’ve done it the hard way.” And that’s like now you’re a little confused. You’re a little confused there. What matters is the entertainment people get as the result. How we get there is just a means to an end; it’s not the end itself. And if you think that is the end, your priorities can get confused and you can have some bad results.

There’s always a degree of that. As game makers, mastery is our driving factor.

Next page: But How's the Game? »

But How's the Game?

We got hands-on play time with the game that's not supposed to exist

There are certain things you probably expect to do in the course of your life: go to college, get married, wonder how M. Night Shyamalan still gets work—that kind of thing. And then there are the moments that take you completely by surprise. Moments that feel utterly surreal—as though your alarm clock’s gonna start wailing for you to wake up at any second—even as they’re happening. What we’re trying to say is, we played Duke Nukem Forever.

Holy sh**, we actually played Duke Nukem Forever.

Big whoop, though, right? With 13 years of expectation, baggage, and broken promises scattered in Duke Nukem Forever’s wake, it’d have to be unquestionably the greatest game of all time for people to even consider that it might have been worth the wait. Honestly, though, that’s not the point. Duke Nukem Forever isn’t trying to be the Citizen Kane of gaming. After more than a decade of pursuing perfection, it’s finally stopped trying to be the biggest or the best. And that’s key, because Duke Nukem Forever is effortlessly fun—no strings attached.

What kind of truck would Duke drive? If you answered anything but a monster truck, this game probably isn't for you.

The demo we played started off not with a bang, but a frothy dripping sound. The King’s triumphant return saw him standing over a urinal, casually taking a leak. Duke’s been out of action for 13 years, but the series’ sense of humor hasn’t aged a day. Which is great, because unlike pretty much every shooter out there, Duke Nukem Forever doesn’t take itself seriously for a single second. For example, we emerged from the bathroom just in time to overhear some soldiers discussing their plan to take down a giant extraterrestrial baddy. “What’s the last step?” asked one. “Um... profit?” another chimed in. The game’s first spoken line of dialog is an Internet meme. Fantastic.

After an explosion and a few quick glimpses of our foes, we found ourselves in a football stadium going toe-to-talon with the giant alien boss monster. It put up a fight, but soon decided he’d had his fill of rockets and politely died, at which point Duke proceeded to kick the beast’s eye through a nearby field goal.

Next up, we got to try a sequence from later in the game, which saw Duke put down his dukes and hop into a monster truck. The driving itself, unfortunately, felt a bit stiff, but there’s still plenty of time for Gearbox to tweak it. As for the path we drove down, it was fairly uneventful. No flaming rings to jump through, no enemy vehicles to destroy. For all the game’s focus on spectacle thus far, the lack of imagination in this bit kind of took us by surprise.

An early sequence in DNF combines the two American pastimes: football and battling giant monsters.

After Duke got out of the truck, however, things heated up again. The red, sandy canyon’s enclosed walls gave way to a clearing, and we were quickly surrounded by Pig Cops. Fortunately for us, we had some classic Duke firepower on our side: the one and only Shrink Ray. A few well-placed zaps later, and we went from fighting giant pigs to literally stepping on pigs so small that we finally understood where bacon bits come from. We got to try out the rail gun and shotgun, but both paled in comparison to the mounted minigun, which started a shooting gallery sequence, with a small army of Pig Cops attempting to overcome our fire hose of hot metal death. Pick on something our own size, you say? Well, that’s the helicopter that swooped in next. Honestly, its giant rocket launcher made us feel pretty inadequate with our puny pea shooter of a minigun, but not Duke. As he faded into unconsciousness after being blasted backward, he raised his hands feebly toward the sky. At the end of the day, even Duke Nukem’s only human, huh? Nope. He then gave the helicopter two big middle fingers. End of demo.

So, the take-away points? Duke Nukem Forever isn’t a revolution. It is, however—based on what we played—a fast-paced, incredibly fun shooter that’ll have you blasting tears of laughter out your eyes nearly as often as you blast baddies. In a nutshell, it’s everything you’ve always loved about Duke, but bigger, prettier, and funnier. Will it be worth more than a decade of waiting? Probably not. But if that’s your attitude toward videogames, of all things—a medium that was invented to give you a good time—then you should probably go take up residence under a rock, because frankly, life’s never gonna be able to satisfy you. Us, we like having fun. Duke Nukem Forever is incredibly fun. That’s more than enough to earn our approval.

Duke Through the Ages

In his earliest incarnation, Duke looked a lot like former Raiders great and NFL commentator Howie Long.

Back in 2001, when Duke was only a few years late, 3D Realms surprised gamers with a two-and-a-half minute trailer set in Las Vegas. This version of the game utilized a new version of the Unreal engine.

George Broussard and developers released a series of wallpaper images of Duke back in 2008. Curiosities were piqued, but legal battles and financial woes held up development.

In 2009, a final batch of pre-bankruptcy screenshots made its way onto the Internet. This was the last new Duke material we saw before the surprise Gearbox announcement.

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